Eclipse is latest company caught in powerful lawmaker’s safety net

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Eclipse Aviation is the latest company centred in the crosshairs of powerful US congressman James Oberstar in his mission to improve public transport safety.

The 15-term congressman from Minnesota, who chairs the House of Representatives transport and infrastructure committee, has taken no prisoners in his crusade for safe public transport, launching widespread reviews of the aviation industry in the process. "Oberstar has made it a priority to do an intense overview of the agencies that we oversee," says a committee spokesman.

Now he has asked the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to look into allegations that the US Federal Aviation Administration certificated the Eclipse 500 very light jet in 2006 despite objections from the agency's aircraft certification engineers and flight-test pilots.

 © Eclipse Aviation

The action follows closely an FAA airworthiness directive last month that briefly grounded the Eclipse 500 following an incident in Chicago where a pilot pushed the throttles too far forward and the full-authority digitally controlled engines jammed at full power, a condition Eclipse is now correcting. The National Transportation Safety Board weighed in on the matter, asking the FAA to ground the aircraft to inspect the throttles.

Eclipse president and chief executive Vern Raburn says there should be no correlation between Oberstar's certification review and the airworthiness directive: "There were zero problems with the throttle quadrant assembly [TQA] during certification in fact, there are no certification requirements on the force the TQA has to endure." Raburn says the fleet of more than 200 aircraft has accumulated more than 20,000h without an accident. Further, Raburn says no one from the FAA or OIG has contacted the company about an investigation.

Before Eclipse, Oberstar captured headlines when he asked the OIG to investigate the FAA's handling of whistleblower complaints over a lack of AD compliance by Southwest Airlines, and a too-close relationship between the local FAA principal maintenance inspector and Southwest's maintenance liaison, a former FAA employee from the same office. In the ensuing scramble to show compliance with FAA rules, Southwest grounded about 10% of its fleet in March and American Airlines did the same in April, grounding hundreds of MD-80s and stranding thousands of passengers.

The OIG and FAA continue to wrestle over recommendations in the OIG's latest review of the FAA's airline safety oversight process. In a 30 June statement, the OIG expressed disappointment that the FAA disagreed to "periodically rotate supervisory inspectors to ensure reliable and objective air carrier oversight and establish an independent organisation to investigate safety issues identified by FAA employees." The FAA, on its website, says "in virtually every area, we agree with the OIG's findings".

Oberstar's spokesman says the Democratic congressman requested the Eclipse investigation based on "the credibility of the information that was brought to our attention." He adds that if the OIG's information validates the concerns, Oberstar will likely hold a hearing in September.